BY MIKE CAMUNAS
It just hit me like a wave. It was hours after I had thrown caution into the wind, ignored every little whiny voice in my head and put my still young life on the line. Walking around the streets of Pamplona, sangria in my hand, I realized what I had just done.
I had run with the bulls. I had survived. Now, this isn’t the first crazy stunt I’ve pulled. I’ve jumped (read pushed) out of a plane, scuba dived probably deeper than I’ve wanted and even, willingly, gone over a waterfall taller than most two-story houses.
This was different. That’s why I’m going to give you tips and descriptions as best I can recall after three crazy days at one of the most famous events in the World: the San Ferminas Festival, better known as the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.
The origin of the Running of the Bulls is unclear. Yet, vague accounts say as bullfighting became popular they would corral the bulls through town to get them into the ring. People would run alongside them to see that, even though it was illegal to do so. As the crowds grew larger, it eventually became an event and turned into a festival held annually. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that it became the celebration it is today
Ready, set …
For more than a week, there is a daily encierro, or running of the bulls, at 8 a.m. It begins at the corral after a rocket is set off signaling everyone through town. It goes through four streets of the old part of the city (Santo Domingo, Town Hall Square, Mercaderes and Estafeta) and a section called Telefónica before entering into the bullring. The route itself is sectioned off by a tall wooden fence, however, it can be climbed for safety. Many runners gather near the Town Hall Square, but also crowd the narrow Mercaderes street, which leads to Dead Man’s Curve. There everyone starts to clap and chant the chorus of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
Done in a flash
There are 12 bulls in all (six fighting, six herding) and each running of the bulls last less than 2-3 minutes. Sometimes it’s longer if a bull falls or gets tied up, but it will be done before you know it. Once they are in the Plaza de Toros de Pamplona, the herding bulls will run around for about 45 minutes, allowing people to dodge and run with them.
Clothes make the runner
Make sure you have the official uniform of the Pamplona San Ferminas. That is white pants, white shirt, red scarf and red sash. There are a handful of shops in town that carry these items. More than likely, you’ll wear it the entire time and it will pick up a sangria stain or two. No matter, you’ll feel more like a fool if you don’t wear the outfit. Don’t forget to have the day’s newspaper in hand. Locals bring them to read waiting for the run to start, but then roll them up and keep them in hand like a track and field baton.
Oh, waiter …
Many of the locals will have, and most likely, share a calimacho. This will be easily spotted in a two liter bottle of Coke. That’s because a calimacho is half sangria, half Coca-Cola. Different tasting, for sure, but you get used to it.
By the numbers
Since 1910, there have been 16 deaths. However, injuries abound and it’s estimated that of the thousands in attendance, 200-300 participants suffer some sort of injury that requires serious medical attention. Most natives will try to convince you it’s safe — they are partly right. The last death occurred in 2009 and of the 16 who have passed, only one was an American (1995).
A Local Legend Runs With the Bulls – And Lives to Tell
Richard Gonzmart doubled checked his life insurance policy. At least his wife did.
“She read it over and over, saying, ‘You can’t’ do this,’ Gonzmart says with a laugh. “But life’s too short to live by a policy. You’ve got experience everything.”
Gonzmart recalls the insane notion to participate in the Running of the Bulls not once, but twice in the past seven years as he sits at his desk that overlooks 7th Avenue in Ybor City, surrounded by tokens and memories that have highlighted his career as the fourth-generation owner of the historic Columbia Restaurant. One such memento is a photo of him, just feet away from two bulls rounding the corner on the Pamplona route.
“I wanted to run with the bulls three times,” Gonzmart says. “I’ve run marathons and swam with sharks — and thought that was crazy — but this is the greatest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had.”
Gonzmart first ran with the Bulls in 2005, even organizing the trip that featured many people affiliated with the University of South Florida. As an avid supporter of the USF variety of Bulls, Gonzmart took 32 people, including women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez, baseball assistant and former Tampa Bay Ray Tino Martinez and the late Tampa Bay Buccaneer Hall of Famer and former USF athletic director Lee Roy Selmon.
“I had us wear red shirts with the USF logo,” Gonzmart says. “They freaked out because they said the bulls would see us. ‘They’re color blind! Just run,’ I told them (laughs).”
Gonzmart did it again in 2009, but says he wasn’t scared, just overwhelmed by the sight, sound and power of the bulls coming down the route.
“The ground just vibrates,” he says. “They’re such powerful animals, and I figured, if one got me, then it would be retribution for some many years in the food and restaurant business (laughs). … But, really, they are such beautiful creatures, and when one slipped, I felt bad. I just wanted to help it. Running that close, being so near to them really makes you respect them more. It’s why I can’t watch the bullfights. I don’t want to see them killed.”
And to commemorate it all, Gonzmart did what he does best: put it in his restaurant by creating a tequila and naming it ‘Screaming Richard.’ As he holds up a bottle, the label featuring the photo of him in Pamplona, he just smiles again. Gonzmart figures he’ll run one more time, likely for his 60th birthday next year.
“I sure can’t wait to go back,” he says.